Welcome to Group B! Each month, stories will be scored on a 5-Point System. Points will be accumulated over the period of 6 months. The 5-Point System takes into account the following criteria:
Each of the 4 criteria are judged on the 5-Point System. A score of 20 would be considered a perfect story by the judges’ standards.
1: Hated it, confusing, illogical, or has mostly negative aspects
2: Didn’t like it, had a lot of negative elements
3: Middle of the road, nothing good or bad particularly stood out
4: Very good, shows a lot of positive elements
5: Great, on par with some professional stories you’ve read, mostly positive aspects
Prompts for February 2022
1. A Frozen Heart
2. A Bleeding Sword
3. A Timely Massacre
Retribution by Joe Price
My hands were slick with blood as I marched on. Countless had fallen to my hands this day, countless more would before the day was done. The city of Elmor was the third largest in Corvas, and the ninth in all the Asterian Empire. It was home to over ten thousand imperial citizens nearly twice that in slaves and the third largest garrison in the empire. By days end it would be gone. A soldier ran towards me, axe in hand and a prayer to his chosen god on his lips. As the axe cleaved my shoulder, rending flesh and bone my hand penetrated his ribcage. His entrails painted my boots as I continued forward casting the lifeless husk aside. His axe still deep in my shoulder.
My first order of business was to block off the city gates, I accomplished this by collapsing the watchtowers at both gates. Next was to herd the people into the center of the city, for his I had ignited several homes around the perimeter of the city. Driving the populous like cattle to slaughter.
A small contingent of the Silver Lions, Elmor’s reputable legionnaires of the empire, approached with weapons drawn. The first carried a spear and was wearing a plumed helmet marking him as their commanding officer. The second and third both carried a sword and shield each wearing leather hats simple peons of the armor, the last three were armored in plate and carrying heavier weapons, longswords and kite shields marked with silver lions flanking the star of Furellion, the mark of the highest of gods. Paladins they were.
“Stop in the name of the Empire.” The one with a plumed helmet commanded raising his spear.
“Disarm yourself and stand down.” Another commanded his hands shaking.
I smiled, drawing the swords at my hips. I charged. My left-hand blade catching the spear just below its head, if I had had a better sword, it would have severed the spears head. I had no need to destroy their weapons, my target was the soldiers. My right-hand sword easily cut through the wrists of the spearman, continuing my movement I followed through with the blade slashing upward severing the spearman’s head.
“In the name of the All God, lay down your weapons or we will be forced to condemn your soul to the fires of the abyss.” One of the paladins said more than likely taking a defensive stance to ready themselves for my charge.
I however, had began to dispatch the two peons, both were minimally to almost entirely untrained and left themselves open to all attacks, my swords met their throats in swift succession both men fell choking on their blood.
“Where was Furellion when Haven was burned? Where was he when innocent children were slaughtered at the hand of your kin?” I asked looking through the paladin. His armor polished to shine; my reflection shone clear on the bare metal my eyes glowing like sapphire jewels beneath layers of red blood.
The Paladin did not answer, as he cast forth a spell of divine smite. The blast took me clear in the chest, penetrating my skin ripping to the bone. He must be so devout for the spell to have this effect. I fell on my back.
A moon after the fall of the hamlet of Haven, Nabrialis showed his face to me for the first time in four hundred and eleven years. The Grey Mystic was renown for being one of the oldest of the remaining Grey, though there were at least two older than he was. Grey lived a cursed existence. Unable to die by anything other than extraordinary means. You are also doomed to watch those you love succumb to time. Eventually apathy and callousness fill the void left. In my four hundred and thirty-two years I had thought him a liar, but when Haven fell my heart atrophied.
“Sir, his heart has stopped, the All God will be pleased with your service to him.” The second, younger paladin said looking to the older one.
“Then he will meet with the maker and make his plea for salvation and be denied.” The elder said sheathing his sword. “Praise be to Furellion the All God.
My eyes opened my muscles moving instinctually, spinning on my shoulders I swept my legs to scissor kick the younger paladin’s legs out from under him. I kicked himself up to my feet and charged the elder paladin bare handed. I watched the fear in his eyes as he saw my unmoving heart through the opening in my chest. He knew who I was, or at the very least what I was. I jammed my thumb into his right eye socket. I felt the pop and listened for screams which never came as his sword buried itself deep into my stomach. Our blood painting his once pristine armor crimson. I closed my fist and jabbed his teeth, bashing more than one down his throat. He carved his sword free from my ribs, removing two in the process and puncturing my lung, if I had a need to breath still, I would be dead.
“Tell me, do you fear death?” I said smiling down at the elderly paladin. He did not answer as I set his face aflame. I lifted the elder’s sword and turned towards the younger. He was just getting to his feet as I raised the sword and in a clean downward stoke separated his head from his shoulders. I had chosen to keep the paladin’s sword. As well as retrieve my two which had been knocked from my hands by the paladin’s spell. I would need them again before the day was done.
I counted the young and culled the old. Killing every man, woman and child unfortunate enough to cross my path. Every farmer and soldier, potter and haberdasher. I had no remorse as I crushed a child’s skull beneath my foot for, I knew my enemy wouldn’t either. Though he had used a trebuchet to murder sleeping children. I killed them while awake, wailing for mothers who would never arrive. They couldn’t, they were already dead most like, if not they had abandoned them in their own attempts to flee. Elmor was the home of Legatus Felix var Novus, the man who commanded the legion which destroyed my home.
Haven was a peaceful place, untouched by time and unsullied by the sword. It was a farming village near the Expanse, a large rift in the land between the Asterian Empire and Glenmorgan, it was also not far from the Dream Wood, the enchanted domain of the Fae-folk. I had a family there, a wife and daughter. Elaine was beautiful, so loving and sweet. She disapproved of my profession as a monster hunter for hire. Though it was what allowed us to first meet. And Thea, oh Thea, how I had failed you as your father. Killed before your fifth birthday. The image of the burning boulder crushing them, the charred half of Elaines body and the near burned stuffed rabbit Thea cherished still haunted my mind.
Felix var Novus had ordered their deaths to build a fort for the empire to begin their assault of the Dream Wood, I would answer his order in kind.
The sky dark with smoke would tell the hour of noon if the sun hadn’t hidden from the bloodshed. I had come before sunrise, and now more than half the city had fallen to my hands. With each step I left blood in my wake. The smell of iron and rust filled the air around me. I cleared their kitchen first, the maids and cook falling to my sword in swift succession. They were as defenseless as those in Haven had been. Next, I made my way into the lord’s chambers, var Novus’s wife the former duchess Iliya Heathcliff and her children huddled in a corner as I entered. Elmor was his command, and he its lord had he abandoned his post?
“Where is the Felix var Novus?” I said without turning my head towards them.
Their silence cost them the last of my patience. I ignited the bed and dressers before stepping towards them I dug my left-hand sword into the stone floors of the room before grabbing his youngest child by the skull and lifting him thrashing in my arms, more than one kick landing, “Tell me where is Felix var Novus.” I commanded staring through Iliya. As a child her father had hired me to clean their city of its Vampire problem. She knew who I was.
“In Aster, receiving his next orders.” She said her voice shaking.
“Then I shall repay him as he had paid me.” I crushed his youngest son’s skull in my hands. Blood and brains splashing myself and the wall as Iliya screamed. I dropped my sword and the child as the former duchess tackled me to the floor. “I shall grant you this mercy.” I whispered as I ran my hand between her ribs and grasped her heart crushing it. “Die swiftly for your husband had not granted such to my family.” As blood stopped flowing her body went limp above me. I pushed her off me as her elder son had swung my sword down towards my face.
Two miles outside the city of Elmor, smoke rising ever higher blocking out light of the crescent moon beginning its ascent in the west. In a sack I had my revenge. A farmer on his way to tomorrow’s market was stopped watching the burning, knowing full well his intentions to sell at market had been snuffed out as the city of Elmor was no more.
“I would suggest traveling the old King’s Road towards Aster, you would get there the same time tomorrow if you left now.” I said looking to the farmer. “This way you can sell the most of your crop without it going to waste.”
“Thank you, stranger.” the farmer said suspicion in his eyes. “What happened here?”
“Retribution, one would say.” I said looking to the man. “If you are to go to Aster, can you present this package to the Legatus of the Silver Lions?”
“I can, though why not join me yourself?”
“I have other places to be, sadly, traveling to Aster would be going opposite Baldesti which is already four days travel from here.
“Ah, well, I can do this for you. For a small price.”
“Verily.” I said as I pulled a handful of coins from my pocket. “Do you prefer payment in draccen, crownmark or vir?”
“Dragons or crowns, we are in the empire, and I wouldn’t want to be caught with Elf gold.”
I counted out the elven coin form my pouch and handed him the remainder. “Thirty dragons and seventy crowns. It is all I have will it do to take this and not open the bag?”
“Aye, I shan’t open it.” The man said taking the coins and the bag. “Goddess be with you. May Lithlynn guide your path.” The man said before turning his cart towards the south.
“May the Goddess smile on you as well.” I said knowing I was sending this man to his death. Felix var Novus would not take kindly to seeing his wife and children as they were now. Two heads, and the remains of the third neatly wrapped for his viewing with a small note.
“Felix var Novus, this is your payment for Haven. – Alistair”
Judge #1’s Scores
Judge #2’s Scores
Amelia by Matthew Johnson
“Sir, your sword, it’s—”
“I know, just don’t look at it.”
“Don’t. I’m weak enough as it is. I won’t have this discussion.”
“As you say, sir. I mean, I could—”
Gravel crunched under Halevord, the Champion’s boots. Halevord, the Conqueror. Halevord, the Brave. Halveford, the Mightiest-Godsdamn-Human-in-the-Spheres-of-Life.
Halevord, the Defeated.
Cast down, ass kicked around, thrashed, smashed, chips all cashed, by a woman. Not just any woman, but a literal Frozen Heart. The kind so beautiful, your chest splits as your own heart claws its way out to beg at her feet. Amelia was her name.
“Ahead, sir, smoke.”
“Or dust blown by the wind devils.”
“I don’t believe in wind devils, sir.”
“They believe in you.”
Simon laughed. Simple Simon, the Steward. Simon, the Secure. Simon, the Savior’s Servant. Poor, delightful soul tried to warn Halevord that Amelia was a Frozen Heart. Tried and failed due to Halevord’s own stupidity. Love blinders, or in his case, Lust blinders, driven like a wild horse off a cliff. Bless his heart. Simon didn’t mention this fact even once. Not even after Amelia nearly drained Halevord of all his blood, sucking him dry like a fat leech, but oh such a succulent body. Simon was too loyal to rub Halevord’s nose in his own pile of shit. Simon would gladly do it for him if Halevord pointed at a brown pile and said, “sniff!”
Not that Halevord would. He has done far worse to the boy. Far, far worse.
“Maybe they will have horses, or other animals to slaughter,” Simon said, running a hand throw his greasy crop of hair, “to fill these vials.”
“Maybe,” Halevord said. He detested the word. It was Amelia’s word, used in reply to Halevord’s desperate questions: “Do you love me?” “Would you die for me?” “Is the soup too salty?” From the looks of the gray, windswept-hills, and nothing else, Halevord didn’t hold much in expectations.
“Really, what’s the worst that could happen if we leave the vials empty, Simon?”
“The end of the world, sir.”
“End of the world.” Halevord let the phrase roll around his mouth. “It has a nice, full feel to it. I could finally rest. Rest, Simon! Sleep without worrying someone was trying to murder me.”
“Sounds appealing, but…” Simon once again ran his hand through his hair.
“What is it, Simon, you can speak freely with me.”
“Well, you know I kind of like living.”
“Of course, you do, Simon,” Halevord rubbed the hilt of his glass sword. “You don’t know any other way.”
They limped across the barren land, lips cracked as the ground, thirsty enough to drink a lake. The glass sword heavy on Halevord’s hip. He would cast it away, if it wouldn’t find a way back to him. Vampiro Sinistro. The lefthanded vampire, the evil devourer of blood, its claws sunk into his flesh, his very soul. Once he slayed the master who created the sword, Halevord became the servant and Simon his minion. At first it made killing creatures who threatened to destroy the world much easier. There were plenty to slack the glass blade’s thirst. However, like all hunted creatures, their numbers diminished. There was less sustenance for the Vampiro Sinistro.
What remained was its need to feed.
With the waking of the Frozen Hearts, which lacked blood to feed the sword, Halevord had to seek out other less desirable sources. Small animals, large animals, and sometimes humans. The bad kind, he’d amend. The kind that deserved killing. Even that thin line had thickened with the renewal of blood spilling into the glass blade. The need for blood drove Halevord to expand his definition of “deserve.” At every destination they arrived, he was always on the look out for those who might fit such definition.
Oh, yes, and always searching for Amelia. Nothing deserved killing more than her.
As Simon so aptly pointed out, the smoke they had witnessed further out came from burning wood rather than wind devils. The scent of stew cooking over a fire perked Halevord’s nose. Hastily constructed hovels shuddered in the wind. Children, dirty, wide-eyed, and sparsely clothed, peered from the shadows on the hovels.
“Where are the adults, sir?”
“I don’t think there are any,” Halevord said, frowning at all the small faces. “This must be an orphan’s camp.”
“Way out here, sir?”
“War knows no bounds, Simon.” Halvord wished he had food or something to give to them, though all he had they have seen far too much. Far too much. At the rate people were killing each other, all children would be orphans until they grew up and began killing each other. Or became cattle for Frozen Hearts.
Halevord stumbled and Simon caught his arm.
“You are weakening, sir. The sword must be fed.”
“Not here, Simon.”
“Where, sir? Soon you won’t be able to walk and—”
Halevord tore his arm out of Simon’s grip. “I won’t… don’t even ask… I will be fine. Let us find our way through and beyond the encampment. I’m certain there we will find suitable means to sate the sword.”
“Look at them, sir.” Simon tugged Halevord’s sleeve. “There’s something not right about them. Around their eyes and mouths.”
“What are you saying, Si—”
“Your friend is correct.” A tall, slender woman appeared from beneath a flap of canvass. She wore a pale blue dress that nearly blended in with the surroundings. Her skin was also pale, smooth, as though made from silk, and stony gray eyes slid across their faces and she smiled. “They are suffering from a malady brought on due to exposure from too much magic.”
A little girl took the woman’s hand. Up close, Halevord saw the red bumps on her lip and circling her eyes, from a distance it appeared to be more dirt.
“Is it fatal?”
“Living is always fatal,” the woman said, fingers twinging through the girl’s mousy hair. “Over time, and without further prolonged exposure, most will heal.”
“What’ll happen to those who don’t?”
“A living death where their bodies begin to rot unless they feed on more magic and those who use it.”
Is that what I’ve become?
Simon seemed to have read his thoughts. “No, sir, these ones will never die, but you, without the blood, will perish.”
“So, I’ve become a Frozen Heart.”
“You heart still beats, sir.”
“Who are you, Mistress?”
“I am the Guardian of Lost and Abandoned Innocence,” the woman said. “These children are my children now. I cook for them, care for their sickness, and protect them from further harm.”
The last part came out as a warning.
“The soup sure smells good,” Simon said. “Maybe it’ll help ease your suffering, sir?”
“So full of hope and maybes, Simon.” Halevord took a few steps, his knees weakening, and he fell. It was no good. He didn’t have the strength to carry on the fight any longer. Beyond this paltry camp of diseased orphans, the Frozen Heart warred against humanity, creating more diseased orphans. Amelia would never stop, not until all had been enslaved. “I fear, Simon. you must take up the sword. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”
“What is wrong with him?” the woman asked, grabbing him by the right elbow, while Simon caught him under the left.
“The blade requires blood, madam. It sustains him and we are fresh out.”
“Though, the soup must taste delicious, I fear, it will not be enough.” Halevord tried to laugh, but it came out as an agonized cough.
“Surely there must be some children where the disease has—”
“No, Simon, no more talk of…” a great wave of pain sliced through Halevord’s gut. A hot knife twisting his innards and forcing the rest of the words into animalistic grunts.
The woman turned her head away, looking to the west, nose raised as though scenting the air, or turned away from Halevord’s dying stench. She released his arm and her eyes brightened.
“Give me the blade,” she said, holding her hand out.
The air crackled and the hairs rose on Halvord’s neck and arms. A static tang tingled his tongue. The fear he saw in the Guardian’s eyes told him that she wasn’t the source. Magic had come to hunt down the children and feed on what it had started.
“He promised not to harm the children, madam. I’m sure you wouldn’t truly want this fate for yourself, either.”
“They are coming,” Halevord said.
The Guardian nodded.
“I’m not strong enough to draw it. Give her the blade, Simon.”
“But, sir! You’ll die!”
He stared into the Guardian of Lost and Abandoned Innocence’s eyes and saw the truth. The fate of the living world stood on the tip of this blade. He had made his choice, for good or for ill.
“No, I won’t. Give it to her, now!”
A tug on his sword belt and the smooth echo of glass singing from its scabbard. A sad and empty song. One full of hunger.
The Guardian stood over Halevord, the glass blade large and looming. In his weakened state, it wouldn’t require much to end his life. Her distorted, awful face shown through the glass.
“How do I work this?”
“It requires blood, madam.” Simon reached out startlingly quick and caught her hand before the glass touched her flesh. “I wouldn’t do that. The blade is really thirsty and may not know when to stop. Here, use this.” Simon rummaged through the pack and brought out an ordinary dagger and a glass vial. “You don’t need to fill it to the top, just enough.”
Shouts began and children cried.
The Guardian drew the dagger blade across her palm without wincing. A trickle of blood turned the clear vial red.
“That is good,” Simon said. “That should be enough. No need to get crazy.”
Simon took the vial from her and poured the blood over the glass blade. Rather than coat the outside, it sank through the glass, giving it a faint pink glow.
“Here, madam.” Simon held the blade back out to her. “Are you sure?”
If she took the sword, and killed with it, the link to Halevord would be severed and he would die. The Guardian gave a gentle smile.
“It’s not for me,” she said. “He is the Guardian of Lost and Abandoned Innocence we need.” She placed the hilt into Halevord’s trembling fingers.
The shouts grew louder and the air thick with electricity. Several hovels exploded, children running past, screaming. A renewed vitality flowed into Halevord, swelled the muscles in his arms and legs, and he sprang from the ground, head clear and vision sharp. The very veins of magic were visible against the clouds like angry streaks of lightening. Enough to erase this orphan’s hovel, and all who resided in it, from the fabrics of time.
“I sense her, Simon.”
“Maybe we should leave, sir. There isn’t enough blood.”
“What about the children?” the Guardian demanded
“Oh, Simple Simon, but there is enough.” Halevord could smell the broiling blood of the approaching mages. The sweet tingling in his nose and the sword whined to taste it. “A veritable feast approaches and they don’t know one thing.”
“What is that, sir?”
“They are already dead, Simon.” He gripped Vampiro Sinistro two-handed, the pink glow fading as the sustenance fed him. “Take the children far from here. Things are about to get messy.”
On the edges of the hovels, Halevord witnessed a killing cadre of mages. Dozens of them on black stallions riding into what they thought was an easy slaughter. Bracing his boots in the gray dirt, he waited. Waited for them to rush into their own massacre.
Beyond them, she waited. His love and his demise.
“I’m waiting for you, Amelia.” Halevord licked his dry lips. “This time, my love. It will be different.”
Judge #1’s Scores
Judge #2’s Scores
Cold Stone Heart by Kenneth Bragg
There exists in the world places of tremendous power. Places where the impossible becomes real and the rules of destiny are rewritten. The Sun God’s temple on the lake of fire in Rivana. A twisting spire in the midst of the Talongrad canyons that pierces the heavens and bellows the four winds.The prison of Bretenruel, a secret held amongst only a chosen few who guard their charge. The Shrine of the Lost God found at times beneath the river Akad by the local fisherman, or at others seen rising from the depths of the Lonesome Sea by the crew of the great galleons and mercantile vessels that sail it.
At one such place iridescent flakes spewed from the summit of the mountain Mahs‘ael to cover all that they touched in a shimmering blanket. Flora, fauna, and the few humans who dwelled in the selfsame named village at the base of the mountain had adapted to life in the harsh tundra, gaining sustenance from the ashfall. Even their appearances were altered over time to match the shifting hues of the life-giving mana. By the outside world they were mostly ignored until the day the mountain received a visitor.
On the plains of the land surrounding the mountain, a solitary trail forged its way through the frozen lands. Merchants brave enough to make the journey for a chance at trading for the unique pelts and other rarities were the only travelers to take the much unused path. On this day however, Jace Torrelson had a different purpose. Driving snows and the inadequate protection of the too few layers he wore did not bother the child of the summer lands so much. Frostbite would be a welcome change against the parasite that intruded into his thoughts at nearly every moment.
It’s farther than it looks
Yet still close
You must not stop
Follow the sound
We long for it
It waits for us
As the sword spoke drops of blood fell from the tip of the blade, hissing as it touched the snowy ground. Now it imposed upon Jace the slow percussive beat of what drove it to the mountain.
“Just…be silent for a moment. I’m doing all that you’ve asked of me. Let it be enough to bring my mind peace!” yelled Jace.
You will know peace
When we have reached
His frozen heart
The Sword of Severed Souls did not command the men it took hold of so much as wear down their minds until they submitted to its desire. It could through force of will take control, but to do so would break the person fully, and just as a broken vessel cannot hold water a broken person made a poor conduit for the Souls.
“Yes, yes. The frozen heart. Your other half,” whined Jace, “I’ve heard it all before. Over and over again. I wish I had never picked up this gods damned sword!”
You made a bargain
You must hold to it
“No, thank you. These past weeks have been more than enough suffering for me,” replied Jace.
You know nothing
As of yet
“Stop calling me that. My name is Jace,” said the Conduit. The sword guided his steps as they argued with each other. It led him to a spot just outside the view of the village proper, alongside what appeared to be grazelands for mountain goats.
Jace set his gaze on the perilous rock face. Before him layed a climb across loose stones and broken paths to an unsure location. He grabbed onto the closest hold and looked longingly toward the well-maintained path that went through the village and up the mountainside.
You can take that way
If we kill the villagers
But there are many
And they may kill you first
Up on a flat section of the mountain Jace saw the outlines of children playing games. He thought he heard their laughter reach him, though faint enough from his distance that he could have imagined it. The death of innocents in exchange for an easier climb. A heavy burden to carry. But where there are children, there are sure to be adults in their wake.
“I’ll take this route. Better to avoid confrontation. I’m no swordsman at any rate,” he said.
The way up proved even more perilous than Jace had initially thought. Several times he nearly tumbled to his death, saved only by the iron grip he kept on his holds. When at last he pulled himself up onto walkable ground he let out a sigh of relief, rolled his shoulders back and wringed the prickling feeling from his hands.
Jace looked to the west in the fading light of the day. “Sun’s low,” he said, “We should camp for the night.”
We have no need
“You may not need it, but I do,” replied Jace, “and if I were to fall to my death stumbling around in the dark then how long do you think you would sit here waiting for another foolish wanderer to pick you back up?”
Has been made
Scratching. Rocks falling over. Scrambling. More rocks.
There is a threat
Climbing towards us
Jace sprung up, clutching the handle of the sword and pointing it in the direction of the cliff’s edge. In the haze of the new dawn a pair of hands clutched the edge of the cliff and the person pulled themselves up and over.
Jace lowered the sword. “It’s just a kid,” he said.
The child looked from the sword to Jace and back again.
“Don’t worry. I’m not here to harm anyone,” said Jace.
The child shifted from foot to foot. “I saw you yesterday, but nobody believed me,” he said, “so I told them I wanted to tend to the goats today.”
He told others
“You have a keen eye, young one,” said Jace.
An awkward moment passed between the two. The young boy furrowed his brows and cocked his head. “Why didn’t you go to the village? We haven’t had a merchant this year,” the boy looked around the camp, “where is your stuff?” he asked.
Jace laid his hands on the boy’s shoulders. “I’m not here to trade.”
With a shove the boy tripped over the mountainside. The shock on his face seared into Jace’s mind, and he couldn’t bring himself to look over the edge after it was done.
Let’s move on
We’re nearly there
For the next few hours Jace traveled further up the mountain. As the wind picked up and the snow thickened his field of vision narrowed more and more.
We are close
Just a little farther
“I don’t think you and I have the same idea of what close m–” Jace’s words were cut off as the ground beneath him gave way.
He slid down a rough passage barely wide enough to fit through, though slick enough with ice to sustain his forward momentum. The passage ended with a thump as Jace was deposited unceremoniously on the floor of a chamber lit only by the light filtering in from other openings around it. Closer to the center of the chamber a mass of ice glowed a hazy blue.
There it is
We have arrived
Is at hand
Jace took out the sword and made his way closer to the center. A giant heart larger than any man resolved itself encased inside of the ice. Its arteries twisted and tubed far more than those of any beast or monster Jace had yet seen. Many of these connected to openings in the mountain while others still laid open to the chamber. When after a moment the heart beat inside its encasement it startled Jace. It was the same sound as he heard within his mind for the past few nights, only far deeper in person. Along with the sound, the iridescent flakes the region was known for pumped free from the open arteries.
“The mountain’s heart is the source,” said Jace.
Now plunge the sword
Into its core
Jace felt a burning at his outer thigh and looked down. More so than he had seen before the sword bleed at a profuse rate, the blood now burning through the stone and searing his thigh where only a drop had landed.
You must strike
With its beat
His hands trembled as he grasped the sword and aimed it at the center of the heart. In a swift motion he skewered the heart as it let out its next beat, the red hot sword driving through as if it were water. When he released the sword, it was as if a great weight lifted from his mind, and at last he knew he was freed from the burden of his pact.
“What now?” he asked.
The sword’s blood soaked into the heart, bringing the death-blue organ back to a lively red. The sword sank further into the heart until the ice surrounding it became a steaming puddle on the cavern floor and all that was left was the jeweled eye at the sword’s pommel. After a brief moment of stillness, the heart beat again, at first slowly, then building upon itself until it resembled that of a living thing. The hard thumping unsettled the mountain, causing a quake that sent loose rocks falling all around. Jace fled to the only opening he could reach and by the end of the downward winding way he found himself at the top of the village with only a few scrapes and bruises.
On the slopes of the village the residents gathered spurred on by the mountain quakes. Fear was apparent in their faces, but some focused on the man who emerged from the entrance to the sacred heart of the mountain. They converged on him as he made his way down into the village proper. All eyes were intent on Jace as they surrounded him. One venerated old man stepped out from the crowd.
“You’re the trader Calin told us about,” he said, “You have desecrated our sacred mountain and killed our son.”
A cacophony of voices assailed him as a young man nearly twice Jace’s size stepped forward, parting the crowd like wheat in a field. Without a word spoken he drew an axe from his looped belt and advanced on Jace.
“I..I had to…” Jace started, stumbling over the uneven ground. The man closed the distance between them and raised the axe high. Jace shielded his face as best he could from the incoming blow. The vehemence of the gathered people reached a crescendo and died off just before the blow was struck.
Nothing happened. Silence filled the air. Jace let his arms fall to his side and looked up at the man now frozen midswing. Where once iridescent, the flakes that now fell were a dark red. The man fell over on top of Jace, his lifeless body pinning him to the ground. When at last he freed himself Jace stood and saw that the other villagers were also frozen in place. Some fell over in their unbalance like the man who attacked him while others remained in their final upright positions, but all of them were covered in the red flakes.
“I have reclaimed what is mine,” boomed a voice from the mountain, “now leave, and take what was promised.”
Jace left the village through the main path of the old traders’ route. Violent shakes now let loose the mountain’s full might upon the village beneath it. He knew now that he had brought back together two halves of a great evil that would now shape its domain in its own image. Still he longed for one thing. To be reunited with his other half. If the sword kept his word she would be waiting for him. He only needed to make his way back to her. Back home.
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Survive by Sean Crow
Caprice pulled her Net-link from the housing station she sat in as the cred-limit ended. The pod opened and the freezing cold of the real world cut through the shoddy synth-fabric bodysuit she wore. Pulling on her heavy coat, the young Fae savored the fading warmth as the bitter wind stole it away.
In the Net she could forget the pain of the world, but the Real was always there, waiting to show her how cruel it could be.
Her mind began to wander back to the moment her father placed a small biodome in her hands after cutting a sprout from the Yew branches that ran throughout their home. Sounds of gunfire and explosions shook the very foundation of the building.
Caprice sold it a month back, needing the creds to update her wetware for the coming winter. If she could survive, she would buy it back.
Since then, she could not sleep without picturing the desperation in her father’s eyes the last time she saw him.
Survive now, worry about the Yew later.
Her eyes traced the shattered reinforced glass of the adjacent housing station, happy that the blood was concealed beneath the snow.
Winter in Twilight was nothing to take lightly. People became desperate when the shelters and housing stations filled up. Difficult lessons were learned, and not everyone managed to figure them out.
Her eyes shifted to the snow piles a few feet away, remembering the huddled mass of bodies as homeless sought shelter beside one of the trees within the park; hoping body heat would get them through the night.
Caprice turned away.
Tapping the small screen on her wrist, skin irritated from the recent update, Caprice checked her creds. Eight hundred was a solid cred-mine, enough to keep the housing station active for another couple days but not so much that it would draw unwanted attention from the corporation she stole it from.
Caprice’s stomach rumbled, reminding her how long it had been since she last ate.
There was a corner store across the park where she could resupply. This was the trickiest part about surviving the winter in a housing station. Always a chance someone claimed your spot if you left it. At the moment, night was in full swing, too cold for the homeless to wander around. It should be safe, but Caprice hadn’t survived the last two years without a good sense for trouble.
There were predators in the world, waiting to take you when you dropped your guard.
Sighing, she inserted her cred-cable into the pod and scheduled the minimum hour. The countdown began, giving only ten seconds to exit before the station closed. Quick as she was able Caprice wrapped a blanket about her shoulders, and began the trek toward the store.
The pod sealed behind her, but Caprice didn’t bother watching it. Her eyes sought the shadows that filled the night. Her ears twitched, feeling the cold already beginning to sink through the tips, and caught the sound of muffled conversation nearby. Though she couldn’t see anyone, it reminded her that she would have to be careful when she returned. There was every chance that someone would be waiting to claim her spot.
Instinctively, her hand fell to the silver bladed dagger she kept. The same blade she had pried from her father’s lifeless hands when she went back to the rubble that had been her home.
It wasn’t much, but a silvered blade in the hands of a Fae was enough to ward off most predators. She hadn’t been required to use it but a few times since the fall of her people.
Caprice’s stomach churned a bit, and she couldn’t keep the dead eyes of the man that tried to force himself on her last summer far from her thoughts.
Wondering why she was in this mess only led to more suffering. There was nothing that could be done about it. All that mattered was survival.
Survival… and getting the Yew back.
Reaching the street, a few people could be seen rushing from one place of warmth to the next. Very few wandered the streets when it was this cold, at least not in the Outskirts.
Before pushing the door open, Caprice pulled the hood over her head, covering her ears as best she was able. Her voice was a giveaway as well, but she could avoid talking. The Outskirts were run by those who had destroyed her people and while there was no bounty for the Fae in Twilight, there wasn’t any protection either.
It was always best to avoid attention.
A burst of warm air hit her face as she entered and Caprice reveled in it for a moment.
“Best to keep the door closed if you want it to stay warm,” a voice said from the register.
Caprice looked up to see a tall man with bits of gray at his temples. He was stocking vape pens with one hand while keeping his eyes on the security screen. One arm was augmented from the elbow down. She noted the high-end tech, an oddity in this part of the Outskirts, but didn’t linger.
Tech thieves were common enough and a long gaze might invite trouble.
She nodded and closed the door behind her.
This wasn’t her first time in the store. Right before the storm hit, she had stocked up what she could from this place. Some store owners would sell her kind to the Velvet District without a moment of hesitation, knowing female Fae were a high commodity. Yet word on the street was that this place was considered safe by most, unless you were a thief.
Quick Peter, the owner, was known to put a round in the chest of thieves. Caprice had to remind herself to keep things legit and her hands where they could be seen.
Caprice felt Peter’s eyes on her. It wasn’t quite the predatory gaze she had seen so often on the streets, more that of a guardian, maintaining the peace of his abode. Her father had been like that.
“You made it to the housing station, I take it?” Peter asked as she collected a few Carb-grab bars.
She looked up to see the man was still stocking his wares. The fact that he remembered her was concerning.
“Yes,” she muttered, trying to keep the sing-song nature of her voice muffled.
He nodded and she watched him for a moment, making sure he didn’t want anything more than conversation. Seeing Peter continue his work, she resumed shopping.
The door opened again and a pair of men stepped through that sent her heart racing. Both wore the insignia of Valhalla Steel Huscarls and carried carbines along with side arms. The smaller of the two, a sharp eyed man with a permanent sneer, sauntered up to the register. He glanced back for a moment, eyes fixing on her. Caprice’s heart froze when they locked eyes, and his smile grew.
“Hear you’ve got a pest problem, Peter.”
Quick Peter turned from his work and followed the man’s gaze to where Caprice stood in the back. “You heard wrong.”
The man’s sneer turned down, his attention focused on the man behind the register now. As his eyes left Caprice, she found that she could, at least, move. She needed to get out, but the only exit was blocked by the second Huscarl.
“Twilight isn’t the place for filthy Fae.”
Peter shrugged and kept shelving
“Fuckin’ Bleeding Sword hypocrit is what you are,” the smaller Huscarl snarled as pointed a thumb back at Caprice.
Caprice’s eyes darted around the store, seeking an escape that had yet to present itself. She had her knife, but what good would it do against men like this?
“Get out of my store Harvar,” Peter said, voice quiet. “You’re not welcome here.”
The Huscarl’s sneer returned as he looked the store owner up and down before settling on the corner turret currently focused on him.
“Lucky you’re armed up,” Harvar snapped. “Or I’d put you down right here, Fae-lover.”
Caprice let out a small sigh of relief realizing that she was, at least for the moment, safe.
Peter set the pens down and tapped one of the surveillance screens by the register. To Caprice’s growing horror, Peter powered the turret down. Opening the door between himself and the register without any particular rush, Peter locked it, then turned to face Harvar. Peter’s augmented hand rested on the mag-pistol on his hip.
This time the big huscarl spoke, “We should leave Harvar. We can get her later.”
Harvar waved the big man down, his chest puffed up as he stood before the store owner. “I got this.”
Caprice’s heart continued to hammer in her chest.
“Then I suppose we have a problem, don’t we Harvar? It’s no wonder you never served with any accolades. You’re a disgrace, both of you. You shame the Allfather with your very existence.”
“Says the man who walked away,” Harvar snapped.
Peter’s stance eased back, metallic fingers tapping the mag-pistol, “Says the man ready to send you to Valhalla.”
The words hung in the air, an open challenge from one store keeper to two men who served the most feared power in the Outskirts.
There was no particular signal that began the violence, instead it all seemed to happen at once.
Peter’s hand came up, mag-pistol aimed and ready. Being Fae, Caprice was surprised at the speed in which he drew the sidearm.
Humans didn’t normally move so quickly.
Harvar went down first, sneering face little more than a ruin of skull fragments and gore. The bigger Huscarl managed to fire a round before four more shots rang out and he fell into a bloody heep at the doorway.
Slowly, Peter turned to Caprice and she could see the blood pooling at his feet from the wound in his stomach.
“Best get moving girl,” he said, legs buckling as he leaned against the glass dividing the store from the register.
Caprice didn’t need any more incentive as she grabbed several more handfuls of food from the shelves and quickly began to make for the door. Timely massacre that it was, she didn’t want any part of it. Yet even as she reached the door, having to step over the body of the hulking Huscarl, she paused and looked back at the man that saved her life.
“Why?” she asked.
Peter, who was now sitting on the floor staring off into space, blinked and looked at her, face drawn. “Never sat right, what we did. I made it out after we set the charges, but when I got down and saw what we’d done…” he winced in pain, hand clutching the wound. “Couldn’t get all those screams out of my head.”
Suddenly the pieces clicked into place and Caprice found herself staring at one of the men responsible for destroying her life.
The sudden gratitude she felt warred with the viscous hate that rose to quench it. Her parents died in that attack, along with the Great Yew, the bond that united her Kin in Twilight. Because of men like this, she had no people, no home, and no hope.
Caprice opened the door, only to be greeted by the swirling snow outside.
She had to survive.
Caprice closed the door.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
She stood over him, eyes fixed onto his. “Got anything to save yourself?”
He nodded, pointing to the other side of the glass with waning strength. Caprice could see a red emergency kit. There were probably stems, synth-skin, and a number of life saving devices within.
“You give me a place to live, and I’ll save your life.”
He let out a faint chuckle, “And make Valhalla wait?”
She wanted to hate him and, in part, she did, but survival was more important. “You owe me.”
His grim humor faded and, with trembling fingers, he drew out a key-chip from his pocket. “Fair enough.”
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Stoneshard by Frank Dorrian
Bring us proof of his crimes – intact, unharmed – and your sentence will be reduced by ten years.
Do not fail us.
Cassus folded the missive, tucking it back in his breast pocket as Doctor Merryck descended the asylum hall’s dark staircase. The patron and master of Saint Yvriel Stoneshard’s Bastion for the Mentally Infirm and Corporeally Unsound.
Or just the Stoneshard as the locals called it – Ardfell City’s ancient asylum.
Merryck was as the dispatch from the Ministry had described – a pinch-faced twat descended from lower-middle nobility – smartly-dressed, despite the hour. An attendant shuffled behind him, holding a Hespher-lamp that painted them both with its ill-green glow. Fear was plain upon her face, her hair falling loose from a hastily-tied bun.
‘Inspector Cassus.’ The Doctor cut a bow.
‘Doctor.’ Cassus tugged the peak of his tricorn hat, making sure the cloth mask about his face was secure. A veneer-thin smile stretched Merryck’s lips.
‘A pleasure to have you, Inspector. I trust the journey here was not too arduous?’ Merryck’s eyes drifted to Cassus’ cane and cloaked left arm.
‘My coachman, Arlo, is Internal stock,’ Cassus sighed, shifting his weight off his aching knee, ruined arm shifting beneath his cloak. ‘Merciless for the frailer passenger, but swift enough.’
Merryck’s smile grew taut. ‘Forgive me, Inspector, but is it not customary for the Ministry to give notice of inspection? And not send Inspectors to one’s door at midnight to drag them from their beds?’
‘The Ministry does as it wishes,’ snapped Cassus. Merryck’s smile faded.
‘Now,’ Cassus said, cane clicking as he shuffled to the Doctor. ‘I think we’ll start things with a tour.’
‘I’m aware of the accusations laid against me, Inspector,’ Merryck said, leading Cassus and the attendant down a darkened corridor.
‘Then you know why I’ve been sent, Doctor,’ Cassus grunted.
‘I have an inkling. You Ministry ghouls label me a madman. A creator of monsters. I assure you, the only experiments here are those of treatment. Advancement of medicine, science, and theory, in the name of the wretched and lowly. One would have a frozen heart not to take pity on these souls.’
A distant, pathetic wailing trickled from somewhere deeper in the asylum as if to prove that point.
‘Then the body they fished out of Yarhul River two weeks ago, with one of your patient-codes tattooed on its neck, was but a tragic accident?’
Merryck regarded him over his shoulder. ‘That was a patient I had cared for over many years. I will bear my failure to the grave.’
‘And what of the mutations he suffered? Did you treat him for those, too?’
‘He was gone for some time, Inspector. Lord only knows what happened to the poor fellow.’
He unlocked the door at the corridor’s end, pushing it open. The attendant’s lamp cast grim shadows across the surgical theatre beyond, crossing like clawed fingers across a stained operating table.
‘I don’t know what you expect to find,’ Merryck sighed. ‘This is a place of healing.’
Cassus limped toward the table. ‘The truth is often willing to reveal itself, given enough time.’
A small speck of something was congealed near the top of it. Cassus lowered himself with a groan, squinting. ‘What operations are performed here?’
‘Frontal lobotomies, and amputations, mostly,’ Merryck drawled.
Cassus scraped a finger through the speck, jabbing it toward Merryck. ‘Then what is this?’
‘Blood.’ Merryck shrugged. ‘Cranial fluid. Any combination of the two, plus about a dozen other bodily fluids.’
Cassus rubbed the speck between thumb and forefinger. Wasn’t blood. Felt almost like oil. Merryck cleared his throat. ‘Are you done, Inspector? If you’ve nothing to support your allegations, leave. I’ve patients to see in the morning.’
‘I’ll leave when I’m ready, Doctor,’ Cassus snarled.
Merryck turned on his heel and swept from the theatre. ‘Larana, be a dear and lock up for me,’ he called.
The attendant – Larana – hesitated, then marched up to Cassus so swiftly he reached for the flintlock pistol at his side. ‘It’s true,’ she hissed. ‘All of it.’
‘The northern observatory,’ she whispered. ‘Meet me in an hour.’
‘It was you that alerted the Ministry?’ Cassus huffed, limping after Larana’s shadow down the northern corridor.
He spun her round by the arm. ‘Tell me everything,’ Cassus hissed.
‘He’s harvesting a chemical from them,’ she whimpered, ‘from the patients – the psychotic ones. Some kind of black fluid. He does something to it, injects it into the others, and…’
The speck on the operating table… the acrid tang of something born of madness and torture. Cassus held back a shudder, the memories stirring like a decade-old corpse.
‘It’s called virhin,’ he growled. ‘A mutagen. That thing in the river killed six people, before the local armsmen brought it down.’
‘He’s a monster,’ Larana whispered. ‘Most of them die. They… warp, and change, and their bodies can’t handle it.’
‘Where is Merryck doing this?’
‘Past his study,’ said Larana, gesturing to a door halfway along the corridor. ‘There’s a switch, hidden in the middle drawer of his desk. It’ll open a door, down to the extraction chambers, and the containment lab.’
Cassus shoved her away. ‘Go.’
‘Stop him,’ she trembled. ‘These people need help, they –’
‘Run, and don’t look back,’ Cassus said, limping past. ‘Tell no one what you have seen.’
The extraction chambers beneath Merryck’s study were grim, clinical rooms, their walls lined with operating tables. Patients were strapped to them, veiled by tubes running from suspended vials to the cannulas in their wrists. Faces twitched, mouths whimpered, every stare vacant.
Psychoactive drugs, Cassus thought, eyeing the hanging vials – designed to trigger virhin production in the brains of the psychotic. Great jars of it hung beneath the operating tables, connected to the patients’ skulls by thick tubes.
‘It’s a fucking farm,’ Cassus muttered.
An iron door scraped open at the chamber’s end.
A beast in a stained leather apron stepped into the light, its bow limbs roped and knotted with muscle. A goggled mask hid its face, stitched into pale flesh. It paused, spying Cassus, and loosed a roar.
Cassus let anger drive him toward it, the pain of his broken body forgotten, its charge scattering medical implements. Cassus’ Caneblade whisked as it came free of its scabbard. He pivoted about a wild swing, slipping the point between its ribs as the creature lumbered past, tearing it free in a wave of blood.
The thing crashed to its knees, flank gaping. Cassus dropped his Caneblade, unholstered his flintlock, and blew its head apart as it surged back to its feet. It slumped to the ground, a tattoo visible on the side of its bloody neck despite the gore.
A code. YS4487.
Cassus holstered his pistol, reaching toward his own.
Abominations filled the containment lab, suspended over darkness in vast glass tubes filled with a fluid that glowed with Hespher light. Twisted things, their bodies crossed with surgical scars, warped limbs more akin to weapons. Boneblades jutted from forearms, fists knotted like archaic maces, jaws distended into hideousness. Each bore a tattoo on their neck – a code, prefixed by YS.
These creatures were former patients.
‘An army,’ Cassus muttered, limping across the metal-grated floor. The tubes stretched off endlessly.
A flintlock cracked. Cassus landed on his back, numb, ears ringing.
‘Quite right, Inspector.’ Pistol smoking, Merryck appeared over him as the pain came surging through his left shoulder. ‘Took you long enough – I expected more from an Internal man.’
The Doctor’s head tilted.
‘Ha. I thought I recognised you. That limp and flagrant shame about your ruined arm gave you away. What was your number?’
Cassus tugged down his bloody collar. ‘YS584,’ he croaked, collapsing. He reached for the wound beneath his cloak, hand slipping into one of its hidden pockets.
‘Ah,’ Merryck drawled. ‘The one who slipped his bonds before the treatment was complete. No wonder you’re just a shuffling cripple. Killed quite a few, I hope, before the Ministry got their chains on you?’
Cassus hissed at the mention of his crimes. Merryck chuckled. ‘Well, seeing as those paper-pushing bastards are so interested in my work here, let’s give them a demonstration.’
He moved to one of the containment tubes, turning a brass wheel at its base. ‘Difficult to harvest pure virhin from a human being, you know,’ he grunted. Steam hissed from a valve at the tube’s side. The liquid inside began to drain, pissing into the abyss below. He turned the wheel of the one opposite. ‘It takes madness. Psychosis, heightened by torture, deprivation. Only then, can it be tapped by skilled hands. My hands, Inspector.’ Steam screeched from the second tube’s valves, liquid gurgling.
Merryck wiped his brow. ‘I could have the Duke himself beg to suck my cock for what he’s prepared to offer for my creations. And you Ministry cowards think you can just take them from me?’
A hand slammed into the glass on Cassus’s right, cracks webbing beneath the palm. Its captive rose, bristling with countless sharpened points of bone.
Merryck’s head shook. ‘Never.’
The Doctor recoiled as Cassus whipped the object from his pocket, striking it against the walkway. The tuning fork’s note sang over the screech of steam and gurgle of fluid, fading pathetically.
Merryck laughed. ‘Your demise is to be a musical affair, Inspector?’
The tube shattered, and the patient leapt down, buckling the walkway. The second exploded – a spindle-limbed thing emerging, its eyeless face full of shifting, rending teeth. The Doctor pointed toward Cassus. The creatures turned, moving as one.
‘I was just summoning my coachman,’ Cassus gasped.
The ceiling collapsed in a spray of stone. Arlo the coachman fell from above, the old bastard’s body trailing dust, changing as he plunged – muscle bulging, limbs stretching.
Arlo crashed down between the two creatures, seizing the first one’s head and crushing it into pulp. The second leapt for the mutated coachman as he flung the body over the rail, sinking its maw into his neck. Arlo howled, blood spraying across his warped, mutton-chopped face as the creature tore into him.
Merryck’s flintlock cracked, staggering the coachman into the rail. It snapped beneath the creatures’ weight, and Arlo’s screams faded into darkness with the sound of the monstrosity’s feeding.
Nothing quite like a timely massacre.
Cassus snatched one of the vials from his cloak’s hidden pockets, slamming its needle into the flesh beside his wound.
‘What are you…’ Merryck’s voice faded as Cassus flicked the release cap, a dose of Ministry-sanction virhin vanishing into his flesh in an instant. ‘No…’
Cassus’ wound closed immediately, new flesh filling the cavity. The stump of his arm jerked, muscles rippling, agony blazing as the mutagen snapped and reworked his bones into something brutal. A scream left him, a curved boneblade tearing through his stump in a spray of blood, its edge serrated like a saw.
Merryck backed away. ‘You Ministry bastards. How –’
‘Doesn’t matter how,’ Cassus grunted, turning the bleeding blade of his arm in the Hespher light. ‘You’re coming with me to the Spire.’
Merryck’s face blanched. The Internal Ministry’s political prison. He bolted for the door, stumbling as a shadow reared in his path, pistol raised.
Crack! Merryck’s body hit the walkway with a wet thud, skull obliterated. Larana stepped through, the weapon tumbling from her fingers.
‘It’s over.’ Her eyes drifted to Cassus malformed arm, lip quivering. ‘So… you’re one of his victims too… come with me, let’s get you treated and report this to –’
Cassus lunged and rammed his blade through her chest. ‘I needed him alive, you stupid little girl,’ he hissed. He ripped it free and left her body behind, heading for the Doctor’s study.
Covered in blood, the blade of his arm still weeping, Cassus sat at Merryck’s desk, drawing a steadying breath as he took paper and ink.
Lord-Minister Vaellus, he wrote. Lab: secure. Doctor: dead. Arlo: missing. Mission: successful.
Send in the Ministry technicians. The virhin supply is yours.
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